Currently, in Nigeria, it is heart-breaking to say half of all children on the streets might not get the opportunity to read, write or learn in a primary school setting.  Even though several state governments have passed laws which makes primary education the right of every child in their respective states, most times I have witnessed that these laws exclude some particular group of children, who some erroneously refer to as the “Almajiris”. Almajiri, by definition, is someone either male or female who is preoccupied with the basic teachings of Islam from their early childhood to adulthood. But in Nigeria, those that are called are sometimes homeless children from the northern side of Nigeria who roam the streets with bowls sometimes fastened to their clothes to beg for food, money and anything you have to offer to them. A large percentage of these children are girls who have never had any form of education.

 

This article is a personal account of my travels within the northern region of Nigeria to examine the lives of the Almajiri girls and the need to educate .

 

In some states in western Nigeria, it is considered an offence if any child is found wandering or hawking during school hours (e.g Lagos State Compulsory Free Universal Basic Education Law Section 13). There are laws, and a task force have been put in place to act accordingly if any offenders are caught. But in practice, this task force do not concern themselves with these Almajiri girls and others begging for alms and food on the streets. Maybe it is because they do not really see these children as residents of the states.

 

Many writers have written extensively on the link between educating the girl child and development. But it is unthinkable that in sub-Saharan Africa, there are about 16 million girls who are out of school and many will never even have the chance to attend. The life of an Almajiri girl is one that revolves around countless (Kidnapping for ritual purposes, being raped, forced child labour to say a few) and developing a framework for their education will bring about not only a turnaround change in their immediate lives but also put an end to the cycle of the Almajiri girls in the country.

 

One of the many benefits to educating the Almajiri girls is in the area of their health and sanitation. It is known that educated girls not only grow up to have healthier children but also have a sense of awareness for their own cleanliness. During my travels within the northern region of Nigeria, I observed that education is a defining factor when it comes to health practices among the girls there. I met several Almajiri girls in Zaria, Kaduna State, and from their outlook, you could tell that it had been a long time since they last bathed. The bowls with which they begged were so dirty, that one wondered how they even felt comfortable eating from them. In common spaces, like parks, the other girls who were selling food, drinks, fried meat and sachet water at t these parks avoided them because of the flies perched on them and the odour that followed them. Many of them suffer from malnutrition, skin rashes improper health management and other diseases that you might not notice by looking at them.

 

In addition to the obvious outcome of reducing poverty, engaging these girls in formal education also has the power to put an end to unnecessary childbearing and, consequently, the issues that arise from early and unwanted pregnancy. Many of these girls are usually married off at an early age of 14 and 15. In Azare, Bauchi State, I quickly realised that the concept of family planning is alien to many of the Almajiri girls. Their mothers continually give birth to children until they are too “tired” – as menopause is termed – to . Due to their strong belief in Islam, they feel it is wrong to use contraceptive and it is divine to give birth to as many children as one can give birth to.

 

“I wonder when their husbands come around to sleep with them,” says my interpreter. He was surprised when we saw some of the girls with pregnancy and the women with very young babies. There were no signs of their husbands around and the tents they sat in could hardly accommodate up to three people.

 

When girls are educated, they stay longer in the education system, thereby giving them more choices to do more with their lives and also not having to be married off at a younger age most times against their wishes. Education makes girls know there is more to them to aspire for and not just subjected to the kitchen and “the other room”.

 

Though there have been many failed approaches by the government (Tsangaya School system approach, Islamiyah School system approach etc) to educate the Almajiri girls and there have been a number of – in my opinion – singular attempts at intervention by a handful NGOs with education as an approach to improving lives, there is more to be done. Stakeholders can and should develop a wholistic framework which will go beyond just taking them off the streets or one-off interventions. The framework should abolish street begging, promote parent’s duty towards their children, make primary and secondary education compulsory for children, strongly condemn early child marriage and promote family planning. With this, the government can also work on a social protection plan for those who needs it.

 

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